In Heavy Rotation: Sam Cooke
It’s impossible to pin down any one album by the great Sam Cooke, and to be honest, the studio albums he released while he was alive did him little justice. His LPs tended to be collections of covers, usually of the showtune or big band variety, and rarely showcased his unique voice and superb songwriting. Nope, he was a singles man through and through, was Sam Cooke.
And boy, what singles they were.
From his first hit single, the beautiful “You Send Me” (consisting of little more than the same three word phrase repeated over and over – the second word swapped out for “thrill” in the second verse) right through the the sublime, posthumously released “A Change Is Gonna Come” (below), Cooke wrote some of the most powerful songs of his generation. It is his voice that’s the real killer: smoothly wrapping itself around the song, but rough around the edges, giving it an edge that allowed him to move from gospel to soul to rock ‘n roll. Arguably one of the finest voices that pop music has ever produced.
His songwriting is also vastly underrated. “A Change Is Gonna Come” sees him tackle racial inequality – America was still very much segregated in 1964 – a brave move even for an African American of his status, and considered by many to be his finest work. Even with comparatively lighter subject matter like dance crazes (“Shake”, “Twistin’ the Night Away” or “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha”), straight pop tunes (“Another Saturday Night” (below), “Having a Party”), love songs (“Cupid”, “You Send Me”, “Only Sixteen”) to upbeat spirituals (“Jesus Gave Me Water”, “Touch The Hem Of His Garment”), his songs are all touched with an irresistible charisma that is impossible not to be charmed by.
The best compilation I’ve found to date is also the most popular: Portrait Of A Legend (pictured above). A 30 song collection that gathers together the vast majority of his great singles and originals, with very little of the trite album stuff. Not everything is there, the beautiful stripped-back demo version of “I’ll Come Running Back to You”, for example, or his great cover of Dylan’s “Blowing In The Wind”, so there’s plenty more out there to discover once you’ve exhausted Portrait.